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india today insight In poll-bound Madhya Pradesh, godmen and politicians are natural allies. Several prominent leaders from both the BJP and Congress are deploying babas of various hues to rally the faithful to their electoral cause.

Never before has the intertwining of religion and politics been so pronounced in the run-up to an election in MP. Hindu religious preachers—ranging from the well-known to the emerging—are crisscrossing the state, delivering professionally organised sermons at the behest of their political hosts. The magnetic pull of their sermons endears crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands and makes them a coveted asset for politicians seeking an edge in the assembly election scheduled for November.

Interestingly, the utilisation of these preachers isn’t exclusive to leaders of the BJP, often accused of practicing Hindu nationalism. These godmen are being used as much by members of the Congress, who adopt ‘soft Hindutva’ to counter their opponents.

Foremost among these babas is the enigmatic Dhirendra Krishna Shastri of Bageshwar Dham in Chhatarpur. Shastri hit the headlines when a rationalist organisation in Nagpur challenged his claimed miracles. Practically every politician aspiring to contest the election is vying for his favour, except perhaps Lahar MLA and leader of the Opposition Dr Govind Singh, who advocates distancing politics from godmen.

Early last month, Shastri made a significant appearance in Chhindwara, upon an invitation from Kamal Nath, the state Congress president. Nath, who represents Chhindwara in the assembly and has his son Nakul representing the constituency in the Lok Sabha, welcomed the baba with aarti.

Shastri was also hosted in Raghogarh, represented by former minister Jai Vardhan Singh. Congress leaders, sources say, maintain a connection with Shastri via Alok Chaturvedi ‘Pajjan’, their party MLA from Chhattarpur, who is said to be behind Shastri’s rise as a godman.

The power dynamics between these godmen and politicians can be intricate. Since the discourses have a political motive, it is not uncommon for Shastri to be pressured into turning down some invites. For instance, he was reportedly made to say no to Narayan Tripathi, the BJP MLA from Maihar whose political group is opposed to Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

Even politicians from neighbouring Chhattisgarh, which has simultaneous polls, are flocking to Bageshwar Dhamto enlist Shastri’s support. “I have invited Shastriji for a discourse because his political and religious views conform to mine,” says BJP leader Prabal Pratap Singh Judeo, the son of late Dilip Singh Judeo who had started the ghar wapsi programme in the state. Prabal is naturally eyeing a party ticket this time.

Given Bageshwar Baba’s popularity, it is not surprising that the dates in his calendar are almost always booked. Shastri was also in Bhopal in April during Parasuram Jayanti celebrations, at the invitation of former mayor and BJP leader Alok Sharma, who has got the party ticket from the Bhopal North seat.

The landscape also features other prominent spiritual leaders such as Pradeep Mishra, a.k.a. ‘Rudrakshwale Baba’, from Sehore. Conservatively aligned, Mishra’s mass appeal was harnessed in June by medical education minister Vishwas Sarang at a large-scale katha in Narela, his constituency. Nathhas also planned a big programme in September of Mishra, who gives out rudrakshas for free.

Youthful Jaya Kishori, another sought-after preacher, has engaged with both BJP and Congress leaders. Recently, she participated in events organised by the BJP’s Vikas Virani in Bhopal and Congress’s Jitu Thakur at Mhow near Indore. Earlier, she was in Gwalior for Congress leader Mitendra Darshan Singh. While Jaya avoids controversial or overtly political statements, her ability to draw crowds makes her one of the most sought-after.

There are others who are in great demand. Avdheshanand Giri, who was known earlier for his proximity to Congress leader Ajay Singh and is now close to Chouhan, is being regularly signed up, as is Devkinandan Thakur. BJP ticket hopeful from Bhopal South West, Rahul Kothari, organised a discourse by Thakur in April. Rawatpur Sarkar, a Bhind-based preacher, who has a sprawling empire of educational institutions, is also politically aligned. He does not see eye to eye with Govind Singh who has been winning despite his opposition. Another godman from the region is Pandokhar Maharaj who is considered close to home minister Narottam Mishra.

Do these preachers customise their sermons as per their hosts ‘needs? While Shastri and Mishra are known to invoke the ‘Hindu rashtra’ demand quite often, Shastri refrained from making such comments at Chhindwara. “Religious symbolism has been part of politics for a longtime. Be it Mahatma Gandhi, Tilak or even Muslim League leaders in the past, they were identified with religion besides politics,” says veteran journalist N.K. Singh, “The modern day kathavachaks command a huge following but the extent to which they can influence voting is not known.”

The engagement of preachers like Shastri in political contexts sparks debates. Shastri’s comment that the Gyanvapi Mosque is a temple has drawn criticism from some Congress leaders who have questioned the propriety of aligning with such a figure. Nath has defended his decision to invite Shastri to Chhindwara, where, in a deft move, an all-religion prayer meet was also organised along with Shastri’s religious discourse.“Dhirendra Shastri did not talk of a Hindu rashtra in Chhindwara, he spoke of all religions. Eighty-two per cent of the population in India is Hindu. The numbers speak for themselves. There is no need for a controversy around Hindu rashtra,” said Nath, downplaying the issue.

Kathas are expensive affairs. Organisers have to foot the bills for tents, bhandara (food), and transport and accommodation for the godmen and their whole entourage. Some preachers charge fees for their sermons, while others don’t mind donations. Shastri asserts that he doesn’t charge for his sermons, but organisers cover event expenses. “The total cost of holding a programme is between Rs 1 crore and Rs 2 crore, depending on the duration it is held for,” a politician who recently organised a katha told INDIA TODAY.

Though the impact of these collaborations on election outcomes remains a subject of speculation, the role of godmen as conduits between faith and politics continues to evolve in MP.

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Edited By:

Aditya Mohan Wig

Published On:

Sep 5, 2023

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